One of the world’s largest inner-city parks, Perth’s Kings Park, will be transformed into a cathedral of light, sound and storytelling, in the immersive, high-tech and free centrepiece of Perth festival 2017.
With an international outlook and a focus on the senses and immersive experiences, the festival program also includes an acclaimed three-course play about the US election which is being written in real time; and a museum of water, crowdsourced by Western Australia locals.
But much like Home and the Giants before it, the big talking point of Perth festival 2017 will be the opening event Boorna Waanginy: The Trees Speak, at Kings Park. The free walk-through experience runs for three nights only and tells the story of south-western Australia – the heritage and biodiversity – through light, sound, projections and storytelling.
Created in collaboration with artists, botanists, scientists and members of the Noongar Indigenous community, it’s a wide-angle concept for a festival highlight, and difficult to explain with no precedent. The festival director, Wendy Martin, envisages it as a follow-on from her inaugural 2016 festival highlight, Home.
“[2016 opening event] Home was really about the history of Western Australia from a Noongar perspective, and what’s happened since white settlement. Next year’s opening event goes deep into a sense of place and country,” she said.
The public begin at an avenue of eucalyptus trees, with light, projections and expansive sound design portraying the six Noongar seasons of south-western Australia.
“As you’re walking along, the blossoms will bloom in the trees, and birds will fly above your heads, you’ll see the numbats crawling,” Martin explains. It opens out to “these beautiful, huge eucalyptus trees” on to which are projected song, dance and creation stories of the Noongar people. “You’ll be kind of lost in it.”
Immersive experiences you get lost in have become a theme of festival programming of late, and one that Wendy Martin has embraced wholeheartedly.
In another highlight, this one shared with both Sydney and Adelaide’s 2017 festivals, Perth will be hosting Simon McBurney’s The Encounter, a “mind-expanding journey through the Amazon jungle” by innovative immersive theatre company Complicit.
The audience wears high-tech headphones, through which they’re dropped into the sweltering, insect-ridden Amazon, and into the mind of the lead character, Loren McIntyre: a National Geographic photographer who got lost in the Brazilian rainforest in 1969.
For political junkies, Perth is also being treated to the Australian exclusive of Richard Nelson’s new trilogy of plays, The Gabriels: Election Year in the Life of One Family.
Written in real time over the course of the US election year, each play is updated just before it opens; the first, Hungry, took place during the primary elections; the second, What Do You Expect, premiered just before the first debate; and the third, Women of a Certain Age, opens in New York on election night. A bit of a gamble, really.
In Perth, all three will be performed together as a seven-hour experience, following one family of upstate New Yorkers, in their kitchen, as they try to make sense of their immediate world and the bigger picture of their country.
“In my notebook, I just wrote quote after quote after quote of the things they were saying,” Martin said, of the first time she saw one of The Gabriels. “These plays are relevant for everybody.”
Martin says she sees her job as artistic director as “sort of like a detective ... You keep seeing people playing in places over and over again, and when you see them in enough fantastic festivals and venues, you know it must be good”.
With that philosophy – aided by Perth festival’s funding of over $12m, which makes it the richest arts festival per capita in the country – she’s packed her program with national exclusives that look outward at the world.
Nouveau Cirque du Vietnam, for instance, are one of only two contemporary performance companies in Vietnam, and will be exploring the tension between tradition and the contemporary world in their new circus work A O Lang; and the Manganiyar Classroom will bring 35 kids raised in the Manganiyar musical tradition to Australia for the first time.
Ian Bostridge, one of the world’s great interpreters of Schubert’s Die Winterreise, will be delivering the piece in the cabaret style of post-Weimar Germany in The Dark Mirror with the West Australian Symphony Orchestra. And Russian director, artist and set designer Dmitry Krymov is performing his genre-defying “stage alchemy” in Opus No 7, a production which the Guardian described as “vivid”, “visceral” and “visually stunning”.
In the first act, Opus No 7 depicts the oppression of Jews in Stalin’s Russia; the second act is about the censorship of composer Shostakovich. “In so many countries in the world right now, these dreadful regimes are in control,” festival director Wendy Martin says. “This is looking back at what happened so long ago, and yet it’s a perfect metaphor for now.”
As an accompaniment, over three days the UK’s Brodsky Quartet will be performing the complete 15 string quartets that make up the Shostakovich Cycle. It’s an endurance performance but as Martin explains, “There’s a lot of work [in this program] that’s just about completely getting immersed inside a world.”
Another case in point: the Museum of Water.
For the past four years, London-based artist Amy Sharrocks has been asking the public to donate vessels filled with water – any kind of water – along with the stories that go with them. Now comprising over 700 types of water, the Museum of Water holds a melted snowman, a new baby’s bath water, spit from Norway, three types of wee, and “water from a bedside table said to be infused with dreams”.
First hosted in London, and then in the Netherlands, Sharrocks will be bringing the third iteration of the museum to Western Australia over the next two years of Perth festival, crowdsourcing water from the driest state in the driest country in the world. When completed in 2018, it will be donated to the permanent collection of the Museum of Western Australia. “I love that it’s forever,” Martin says.
• Perth festival runs from 10 February-5 March. Head to their website for the full program